Pentagon Admits to Killing Civilians in Iraq
U.S. air strike on checkpoint highlights intelligence problems and a need for more transparency
On March 13, two U.S. Air Force A-10 Warthogs closed in on an Islamic State checkpoint near the Iraqi city of Al Hatra. The ground-attack planes then targeted two vehicles parked nearby and released their GPS-guided bombs.
The pilots assumed the vehicles, a GMC Suburban and a Kia Sorento, belonged to the terrorists. In mid-March, the U.S. Air Force received an email suggesting otherwise.
Describing the scene in painful detail, an Iraqi woman wrote that a family of five — two women and three children — plus a driver were inside the Sorento when the bombs exploded. Trying to escape the nascent Islamic State, they were on their way to safety in Baghdad when fighters stopped them at the checkpoint.
More than eight months later, the Pentagon’s top headquarters for the Middle East released the results of an investigation into the strike.
“The preponderance of the evidence gathered during the investigation indicates that the air strikes likely resulted in the deaths of four non-combatants,” U.S. Central Command – a.k.a. CENTCOM – wrote in a Nov. 20 statement accompanying the release of the review.
“One of the non-combatants may have been a child.”
After more than a year of bombing Islamic State, the Pentagon report is the first official acknowledgement that America’s air campaign has “likely” killed civilians in Iraq. While the investigation and admission are commendable, the contents of the official report and how it got to the public highlight continuing intelligence problems and a need for more transparency.
“The identification of the two vehicles and the drivers interacting with the checkpoint personnel as valid military targets was consistent with previous coalition analysis,” the investigators explained. “Video footage review indicates the aircrew had no opportunity to detect the presence of the likely civilians in the target area prior to weapons impact.”
CENTCOM may not have even investigated the incident were it not for the email message. While the woman mentioned civilian deaths, she was primarily interested in getting reimbursement for her burned out Sorento. Among a number of other redactions, censors removed her name from the report when they released it to the public – a reasonable move, given privacy concerns and possible terrorist retribution.
“On Friday the 13th of March 2015 I sent my car … from Mosul to go to Baghdad in order not to be confiscated by ISIL, because I’m wanted for [sic] ISIL,” she explained, according to a translation using a common acronym for Islamic State. “I wish if you would agree to compensate me for my car because I have already lost my house that is confiscated by ISIL.”
It’s not clear if the woman was one of the surviving passengers in the Sorento. Another family was in the GMC Suburban that the American jets bombed, according to her account. Despite the possibility of additional civilian casualties in the Suburban, CENTCOM acknowledged only four deaths in total.
All of this adds additional weight to previous reports that the U.S. military is having trouble identifying targets in Iraq and Syria. To further complicate the battlefield, Islamic State deploys civilian-style vehicles kitted out with machine guns and rocket launchers and uses largely nondescript structures as command posts and fighting positions.
In strikes in Iraq on Nov. 20, coalition jets bombed a host of vague targets, including Islamic State “vehicles,” “fighting positions,” and “buildings,” according to an official press release. Based on the events described in the Hatra investigation, American officials appear to be using a method eerily reminiscent of controversial “signature strikes,” whereby the basic actions or positions of cars or individuals are enough to mark them as enemies..
Without direct communication with American forces on the ground – or even Iraqi or Kurdish troops in many cases – to confirm the nature of targets one way or another, coalition pilots have few options. Unfortunately, this new revelation opens up the possibility that tragedies like Hatra have happened before or will occur again.
And lacking any real access to areas Islamic State controls, the Pentagon relies heavily on grainy video footage – such as one video embedded further in this article depicting a March 30 air strike on a checkpoint in Mosul – to figure out what might have happened after officials learn about possible civilian deaths … after the fact.
In the case of the attack in Hatra, CENTCOM conceded that it had made no effort to gather additional evidence. Further, despite admitting to killing innocent bystanders in Syria in May, American officials had refused to confirm coalition aircraft had killed any civilians in Iraq until releasing the results of their investigation into the attack near Al Hatra.
“No positive identification can be made with reasonable certainty as to the person’s gender or age without further forensics or on the ground investigation,” the investigators reported. “Based on the specificity and accuracy of the email claim on all other aspects that can be confirmed … the preponderance of the evidence supports the veracity of the … claim.”
It’s true that “Western air forces present far fewer risks to civilian casualties,” Chris Woods of the independent monitoring group Airwars told War Is Boring. Civilian deaths from coalition attacks are “relatively low,” especially compared to recent Russian strikes and Syrian president Bashar Al Assad’s deliberate attacks on own people, Woods added.
But that doesn’t mean the Pentagon doesn’t have an obligation to be honest about its own mistakes. The inaccurate portrayal of risks do not serve the American people or the victims of Islamic State’s tyranny.
Airwars has recorded more than 260 accusations of civilian deaths from coalition air strikes in Iraq alone. The group’s researchers have evidence to suggest that 110 of these accusations are credible.
For its part, the Pentagon insists it is doing everything it can to avoid — and investigate — civilian deaths. But Washington and its allies appear unable or unwilling to dig deeper into those allegations. CENTCOM has dismissed the majority of instances as “not credible” within 48 hours based largely on “insufficient evidence” or “insufficient information,” according to an official spreadsheet of civilian casualty allegations War Is Boring obtained via the Freedom of Information Act.
“There’s no due diligence, there’s no follow-up,” Woods noted. “This is book keeping.”
This in turn suggests a worrying lack of urgency, transparency or both. And publicly released information suggests the Al Hatra report was ready for public release months ago. While CENTCOM’s investigation itself is undated, Lt. Gen. John Hesterman, the Air Force’s vice chief of staff, appointed an individual to look into the matter on April 20.
There appears to be some confusion over how and when the actual allegation made its way to American officers. According to the final report, the Air Force’s Combined Air Operations Center in Qatar got the email in “mid-March.” However, the Pentagon’s main headquarters in Baghdad only forwarded the message to the center in April, according to the spreadsheet.
CENTCOM had not responded to our requests for clarification at the time of publication. It is entirely possible that the two command centers received the email separately, or that officers in Baghdad passed it back to officials in Qatar for further review.
By at least May 1, the Pentagon noted the investigation was ongoing. On June 28, Hesterman had seen the final investigation, according to a memo attached to the now public report. Then the findings languished in bureaucratic limbo for at least another three months. On Oct. 8, U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Terry Ferrell — the CENTCOM chief of staff — finished his own review of the findings and approved it for release.
But despite this, CENTCOM declined to release the document at that time. “We think this is absolutely unacceptable to have sort of delay,” Woods said.
On top of that, the command’s Freedom of Information Act office told War Is Boring that it could not find any executive summaries from final reports on potential civilian casualties in Iraq or Syria. The office told us that in a letter dated Nov. 6 … nearly a month after Ferrell signed off on the Al Hatra investigation.
We have not received any explanation as to why this report was not reviewed in response to our request. War Is Boring plans to appeal the final response and seek additional documents based on this chain of events.
Taken together, the Pentagon is clearly failing to present a clear and transparent picture of the air war against Islamic State. Not only has the rhetoric become insulting to the intelligence of everyone involved, it can only feed into the terrorists’ already effective propaganda machine.
It’s also strategically stupid. Iraqis and Syrians who might otherwise support air strikes might lose their faith in the campaign if they feel the Pentagon doesn’t concern itself with their lives and personal property.
Now in light of reports that the command has been fudging intelligence on the overall campaign, this doesn’t do anything to help CENTCOM’s reputation. In September, the Pentagon’s top watchdog started looking into whether reports were misrepresenting how well Iraqi troops were fighting and how effective the coalition has been at beating back Islamic State.
On Nov. 21, the House Committees on Intelligence, the Armed Services and Appropriations announced it was forming its own “task force” to review the matter, according to a report from Stars and Stripes.
At its most basic, the poor showing from these investigations means civilians killed in air strikes get lost in a sea of statistics. “We may never know the identities of these women and children,” Woods lamented about the Hatra incident.
If the U.S. government wants to truly paint itself as their champion on the international stage, they deserve better. We all do.